When someone calls a piece of art that influenced us into question, our natural instinct is to defend it. I know that’s how I felt when I first heard about the criticism of The Silence of the Lambs. The accusations of transphobia didn’t make much sense to me, and since the film was one of the most influential movies of my younger years, I felt almost obligated to come to the defence of Demme’s 1991 horror opus. This culminated in this article I wrote for our blog, which has gone on to be one of our most-viewed pieces. In retrospect, I also feel it may be one of our most ill-advised. In my eagerness to defend Lambs, I neglected to listen to those who felt hurt by the film.
These criticisms of The Silence of the Lambs aren’t new. Controversy has been a part of the film’s legacy ever since the year of its release. The Academy Awards were protested on the night Lambs swept the awards. The criticisms of the film were the same then as they are now. Many felt that the character of Jame Gumb was a trans-phobic caricature, portraying the desire to change one’s sex as something sinister and dangerous. While there is some context for the Jame Gumb character, it is important to understand and empathize with these criticisms.
Origins of Jame Gumb
Thomas Harris researched several real-life serial killers in the creation of his novel, one of whom was Wisconsin killer Ed Gein. Gein was a deeply disturbed hermit who was pushed over the edge by the death of his mother. His crime spree began with grave robbing and eventually escalated to the murders of two women. One of the most noteworthy aspects of Gein’s crimes was how he desecrated the corpses of his victims. Perhaps the most grotesque desecration was using the skins of several corpses to make a suit which he would wear around his home. It was this act that inspired the creation of Jame Gumb.
Gein proved very influential on popular culture, serving as the basis for not only Lambs, but also Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now Gein is hardly what you’d call transgender. Nothing about his life speaks of the healthy transformation many go through when the decision is made to change one’s sex. He, like most murderers, was motivated by the need to possess, and it’s these themes that book and film attempts to address.
The Silence of the Lambs made a big impact on me when I first saw it, mainly due to its portrayal of a career woman navigating a male-dominated world. Clarice Starling provides a strong moral center for an often dark and sinister movie, with her crusade to free the captive Katherine in sharp contrast with Gumb’s desire to imprison and possess her. The film captures Clarice’s discomfort beautifully. Threatening leers and flirting from male co-workers are shown in POV shots, creating the feeling that we ourselves are being scrutinized. Screenwriter Ted Tally elaborates on this:
“I think what especially interested Tom in Silence of the Lambs was to try to live inside the mind of a female character, to put a woman at the center of a book, and I think that was the challenge that he set himself.”
I always interpreted Gumb as an extension of the film’s themes of womanhood. Throughout the entire film, Clarice is disrespected, flirted with by co-workers, and dehumanized by mental patients. This culminates with her trapped in the lair of a man seeking to dehumanize her in the ultimate way, by literally turning her into one of his possessions. In destroying him, Clarice eliminates the biggest misogynist in the film, thereby affirming her person-hood and overcoming a past trauma. That being said, these themes do sometimes lead the film into troubled waters. Someone could just as easily claim Lambs is the story of a ‘real’ woman destroying a ‘false’ one. This is how many felt when Lambs first hit the big screen, and these criticisms had a noticeable impact on those behind the making of the film.
Silent No More
The controversy around the film is well documented in documentaries like Inside the Labyrinth: The Making of Silence of the Lambs. This documentary is where I got the most information from the previous article. Ironically, in citing the documentary, I also completely missed the point it was trying to make. In truth, those behind the film were very receptive to the criticisms of it. Even Ted Levine, who played Gumb in the film, expressed guilt for how his performance had impacted some of the film’s viewers:
Some people really took it to heart and were offended by it. I’ve talked with people whose feelings were hurt about the characterization I did and I apologize for that.
Perhaps the most potent moment in the documentary is the testimony of Anthony Heald, who played the nefarious Dr. Chilton in the film. Heald recalls the night of the New York Film Festival, where prior to the awards, LGBT advocates passed out leaflets dealing with what they felt was a harmful stereotype perpetuated by the film. Heald remembered being worried about Demme’s reaction. When Demme took the stage, however, his response is not what Heald expected.
“Jonathan was introduced, and he said ‘I don’t know if any of you were aware of these leaflets that were passed out. He said ‘I think that was extremely gracefully done, and I think we should all read these and pay very close attention to the message, because Hollywood has been guilty.”-Anthony Heald
Heald proposes that Demme’s following movie, Philadelphia, was a deliberate effort to call greater attention to issues faced by LGBT Americans, such as homophobia in the workplace, and apathy to the AIDS crisis. I think the larger point we can draw from this is that Demme, when faced with criticism, at least made an effort to listen. If the director himself is willing to listen, then we have no excuse not to.
I was raised by a single mother, and watching Clarice’s struggle in this film helped me better relate to what my own mom was growing through, ultimately leading to a better relationship for both of us. I was so eager to share that positive impact this movie had for me, I failed to take into account how this movie might have impacted someone else. I never put myself in the shoes of another kid starting to feel lost on their own body, and wondering if the monstrous Gumb was how the world saw them. Maybe it’s time for all of us to imagine the world from such a perspective. As with Demme, it’s time for us to listen.
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